I push the button and the black steel door slides across its tracks, revealing morning traffic and fallen rusty flowers from the nearby Flamboyant Tree. Every morning it’s the same, as I start my 30-minute walk to the office. For the next 2 kilometers, I wind through residential avenues, pass by small batches of commerce, and finally pass into the shaded entrance to Camfed where a guard opens another gate for me to pass through. I receive a warm “good morning,” and walk on to my office, pausing briefly in each open doorway to greet my colleagues.
Between the push of the button and the morning work rituals, my morning journey is lined with walls. High walls. Most draped with razor wire or electric lines, or topped with sharp metal spikes or shards of glass that kaleidoscope in the sun. I cannot tell you the color or style or size or state of a single home along the way. I cannot describe to you the gardens in bloom, or the children at play. I cannot share with you a single glimpse into the lives of the people who live along the way. I cannot tell you any of this. I cannot tell you any of this, because of the walls.
* * *
Though previously in shadows and hidden from view among the huddle of girls at her sides, when the time came for her introduction, she shot straight up from her chair near the back of the room and proclaimed:
“Look at me!
I am strong!
I am fat!…
Look at me, Patrick!”
A burst of laughter erupted in the room. She then carried on with her declarations.
“By next year, I want to buy my own car. And I’m going to drive Patrick back to America!”
Again, the other girls cheered and hooted their approval of this young woman’s candor and confidence. And then the next one rose, and over and over again grace prevailed.
The 78 young women who represent districts and villages across Zimbabwe gather one time a year as alumni members and Camfed beneficiaries. Each has received financial support that helped them complete their secondary school education. Many are now entrepreneurs and rising leaders within their communities. Some are mothers. And all of them are poised, dignified, bilingual and impossible – impossible – to ignore.
In their opening session, each stood and introduced herself. They stated their name, their district, and shared how Camfed and its network of alumni – CAMA – had impacted their lives.
They speak in unordinary terms. Grand and assured. Deeply and with certainty.
“You delivered my life, and moved me into my better world.”
At their gathering, you will not find a single victim of poverty. That’s not because any have absent in their lives the experience of lying in bed with an empty stomach. No. It’s because none of them could possibly identify with the notion of being a “victim.”
There was heaviness – an identifiable, tiring weight – to their testimonials. But each found a way to crescendo, and lift the entire room, with their parting remarks. As I sat listening, stories were being etched and fortunes were being read. And from time to time, I was summoned to occupy a place within.
“Mr. Patrick, I am so happy to see you and so glad you are with us.”
And with such sweet sentiment, the weight was delicately passed on to me. And then, as if somehow magically tethered to my struggle in bearing it, they lifted it all away with song.
For three days, I watched and listened as this group of young ladies convened around important issues involving their network of graduates, their communities, their families, and their futures. I saw them celebrate each new day in song, hunker down for sometimes-intense deliberations, and then rise back into the clouds – pulling me with them – in a chorus as powerful as any cathedral could house.
Their songs traveled from somber to soaring, taking good time between points on an ethereal journey. Their hymns at once carried cries, only to cascade into pools of joy swirled by tempests raging against monsters that might rise before them. And with energy converging like a storm front, their songs turned into dance, and their dance turned into prayer.
My witness was sure to end. I had been asked to present an hour-long training to the girls on how to best leverage Kiva’s loan program, and how to take better photos for their loan profiles. Initially, I had made some simple modifications to an existing Power Point presentation I had been provided by Kiva at my fellowship training. But after meeting the girls, I knew I needed to elevate my content to a much higher place. I’m so glad I did. That extra investment of time helped add some personal touches to my session, and ultimately gave me an idea…
The day before, I was asked by Camfed to draft a brief profile of one of the young women who was a mother as part of a Mothering Sunday newsletter piece. As part of that project, I took a portrait of Dadirai and her daughter, Praise. The photo turned out so beautiful, it made me want to try to capture an image from each of the girls. From Thursday morning, and into Friday, I shot portraits of each of the 78 young ladies. It was a fun – though sometimes challenging – project. For every one who was anxious to pose for a portrait, there was another reluctant to smile. The coaxing of smiles became a recurring theme, but I was finally able to get at least a grin from each girl burned into an image.
By Friday afternoon, I had prints in-hand for each one ready to distribute prior to my departing for the airport for an afternoon flight. I knew I wouldn’t have time to hand each photo out individually, so I improvised with a last minute group activity to get the photos to their rightful owners.
I made a few remarks to the girls before getting to the photos. I first thanked them for allowing me to take part in their annual gathering, and for giving me a chance to get to know them. I also told them how magical I thought they all were.
For the photos, I told the girls I would give out the first portrait to the girl whose picture was on the top of the stack. That girl would then deliver the next portrait below hers, and so on. I asked each girl to tell the one whose portrait she was presenting “You are magic!” as she handed over the photo.
The photo on top was of one of the girls who had the most stubborn smile. I wound up shooting her photo both Thursday and Friday before finally getting an image of her smiling.
I walked to the back of the room where she sat.
“It seems fitting that the first photo for me to present is for the hardest smile I’ve ever had to work for,” I said. And as I placed the photo in front of her, I leaned down and said, “You are magic! Please don’t ever hide your beautiful smile from anyone.”
For 20 more minutes, I stood at the front of the room watching one girl after another hunt down the owner of the next portrait. Finally, I had to leave. I waved goodbye and left them to finish the gifting to one another.
* * *
The walk home always comes with the heat of the afternoon. By the time I’m within sight of the rusty red flowers, sweat is running down my neck and back, and the weight of my satchel is pressing a groove into the flesh of my shoulder.
When I turn the corner and make it to the minibus stop, I can see the gate and I push the button. The steel door moves, I enter, and it rumbles closed behind me.
Again, I am within walls. But still, now – from outside, beyond whatever other cares may come, and to lift whichever ones arrive to rest upon me – still, I can hear their voices.
And they are singing…